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Free Ride
"Not John's actual ride, but the same location. "Free Ride" was even bigger!

Picture by Debra Huse www.debrahusegallery.com and www.debrahuse.com

John "Caveman" Gray

Author's Note:Free Ride was requested by The Wedge websight as an inviste into the early days at this evil surf spot. Unfortunately in '63 the Kodak Brownie was the technology of the day, so I don't have any photos of my early wedge days. These images are from The Wedge website. Most were taken in the 90's, over 30 years after Free Ride.

Labor Day in Southern California means sunny skies, crowded beaches and a gentle 2-3 foot swell the kids can play in, so we visited family friends at their Huntington Beach house. In 1963, I was 18 and still hadn't seen the already legendary Hawai'i, but I literally crawled into the Laguna Beach surf when I was six months old. I kept right on going, spending my time outside school bodysurfing and SCUBA diving. To keep lifeguards in panic, I had already 'shot' every pier between Huntington and La Jolla in days I can't even remember.


It was ten years until satellite photos, radar images or any form of swell forecasting, so my brother Tom and I expected some small Huntington shoulders while the parents watched from their beach chairs.

What we found was15 foot closeout dumping surf - the largest I'd ever seen. Huntington is a long, sand beach without a point break - just huge swells dumping outside, reforming a hundred meters out, dumping again and hitting the beach in a wall of foam powerful enough to knock us over in knee deep water.

Just getting outside was hopeless, let alone catching a decent ride. Young and stupid, we gave it a try.

We didn't get anywhere. Obviously, with a swell this big, we needed a point break just to get out - or a jetty break. Obviously, this was the best swell of our lives. Why weren't we at the Wedge.

Back at the beach house, Tom and I lobbied hard for a drive to Newport. The only problem was that mom knew her surf, and she knew the Wedge. No way, today!

Plan "B" was snorkeling at Corona Del Mar cove, usually ideal for a pleasant day's snorkeling. There's a small but beautiful sandy spit snuggled up against the Newport Harbor jetty, well protected inside the double jetty, Wedgeheads know that the other side of the channel is the legendary Wedge, the biggest, meanest, strangest shore break anywhere East of O'ahu.

Mom emphatically decided that if we were going bodysurfing on a day that big that we would go to the Corona Del Mar side. Maybe she could still go snorkeling. It was a fair compromise. Off we went.

Thanks for Mom's. Corona was a nice ripping 15-foot peak swamping over the breakwater, sucking so deep we saw rocks that hadn't seen air since they built the jetty. The beach was packed with Labor Day crowds, but only a couple of dozen bodysurfers. The form was excellent, and getting out was fairly easy. Waves that big broke in plenty of water, so we took some chances, experimented, and spent the day playing with the peak. Sometimes we caught the pitch, dropped straight down the face, made a radical bottom turn and raced the tubes. When they collapsed, we tucked back and came up facing a monstrous by predictable wall. No problem.


Our favorite game was to intentionally pitch over the falls, free fall head first into the foot of the wave, and let our momentum tuck us under the wave foot just in time to line up on the next wave.

We played like this for hours.

In the early afternoon, the beach guard was going nuts with his bullhorn until he finally caught my attention. He was pointing to a swimmer so tired he was headed to the jetty instead of the beach. On a normal day, the guy would have been sliced to ribbons in the wave surge. On that day, he was asking to be ground into hamburger.

The guy was so close to the rocks it was already foolish to go in and get him, so of course I did. No fool, I considered my options. My Super Extra Large Voit Duck Feet gave me several. I had the torque to time the break, grab a cross-chest carry, and pull him out beyond the break before we both got dumped on the jetty. Another possibility was to let a big peaks wash us over the breakwater and into the channel without scrapping rocks, a ride I really didn't want to try. The Wedge on a good day

Luckily, I was able to grab the guy and pull him away from the jetty. I waved off the guard. The guy was really tired, and really freaked, on the verge of panic. He wasn't thinking normally, and swam to the jetty as a knee-jerk reaction. There were no choppers in those days, and who knew where the Lifeguard boat was, so I had to take this guy in through the surf.

We regrouped just outside the break where waves are peaking, but not yet breaking. It's an interesting spot to calm down a victim, but there weren't any lifeguard boats waiting to take us to the Stuffed Shirt. I had no choice but to calm my victim, assess the situation, explain what we would do, and do it. 


Next time you are on that roller coaster of 15 foot forming waves, try pulling somebody out of there, with or without duck feet. From the trough, there's nothing but water. From the peak, you'll get a frustrating and fleeting glance at dry, safe land beyond that huge break in the foreground. There's really only one way to handle an unassisted rescue in large dumping surf, and it's not fun. 

Gradually swim closer to the break with your victim, and wait right at the peak for a break in the sets. If your victim isn't a surfer, keep their eyes to sea so they won't see down that intimidating wave face - instant panic for any non-surfer struggling victim. When a calm comes, "swim" like hell through the impact zone before the next set hits. Of course, all the water is dumping off the beach, and usually, your victim is just dead weight anyway, so go into this maneuver expecting both of you to get crunched. 

Of course your goal is your victim's survival, so you've got to break some rules. Your only hope of saving them in that dumping soup is to stay with them - and the only way to stay together in that pandemonium is to double bear-hug, face to face. This makes you a serious candidate for a double drowning and the funny farm. Bear hugs require extreme faith in your superior conditioning and swimming abilities; and the hope the victim will release when things get really bleak. 

The last thing you want is to get dumped "Over the Falls", a problem because you are so sluggish you can never maintain speed with the wave - a bad spot to be with so much water washing up the face of your wave.

When you see that inevitable crunch-time looming, get as low on the wave face as possible, bear-hug each other, take one last deep breath - and get crunched. With luck, you can stay clenched through the impact. It's a sickening feeling to lose your grip on somebody during this explosion

This uncomfortable scenario should be avoided whenever possible. Several tons of water dumps from five meters up, tossing both of you in a giant washing machine. Sometimes, if you want to save a life, you have no choice. 

We held our breath, bear-hugged, took the dump, and according to plan, we tumbled onto the beach right in front of the guard. It was my first contact with dry land in hours. 

The victim spit foam for a couple of minutes, then said, "Wow, I never realized ocean waves were so big and strong." The guard and I shared a look that said, "What's this jerk talking about. This is the biggest swell of our lives." I said, "What do you mean, man? This is the biggest day I've ever seen" Flat on his back in wet sand, my victim said, "Really - I'm from Iowa. This is my first time at the ocean. I just thought every day was like this."

I grabbed my fins, and ran back into the surf for another few hours of free falls. But the Karma I "banked" from that rescue helped save my life almost immediately.

All day long, the jetty was awash - not with spray, but thick green stuff. It was the first time I'd seen this awesome sight, and we all wondered about the Wedge. We left about 4pm, trying to convince Mom to drive the Newport circuit in Labor Day traffic so we could "just watch the waves. Sure, nobody's surfing, but let's take a look." It's only 200 yards across the Channel, but the Wedge is a long drive around Newport from Corona. From the Corona parking lot, we could see the peaks of swells. Driving up the cliff, we got the panorama. Mom went for it. We were off to the Wedge.

It was late afternoon when we finally beat the traffic, but there were still several hundred onlookers... but only three lunatics in the water, 

I slid into my wet suit, grabbed those Duck Feet, jumped off the overhead sand cut into the water and immediately caught a nice 15 foot right while I was swimming to the line up. The Wedge runs double the size of anywhere else, so that wasn't an unusual wave. What was unusual was the right.

The Wedge is a "rebound" wave. When a wave jams into the corner where the beach meets the jetty, it rebounds off the rocks almost perpendicular to the following wave. On reasonable days, its great fun to start near the jetty, catch the rebound and race across the face before it meets the next wave and builds up into a giant bowl.

The rebounding wave packs into the face of the oncoming swell, driving the wall so steep that the waters "peak" so rapidly you can hear them explode. Where the two forces intersect, everything sucks up, forming the "bowl". The fulcrum is the Bowl.

Instead of pealing off, the Bowl collapses on either side of the fulcrum. Wedgeheads can take the rebound off the jetty, race high on the wave away from the jetty to hopefully "Beat the Bowl". They usually enter the forming bowl on an incline, make a turn at the point of the bowl, screaming down and away from the break (and the rocks) as the bowl collapses. Because of the complexity and dangers involved, for me, this is the perfect Wedge ride.

However, an early take off on the rebound wave results in a sluggish ride, and you will be late into the bowl. A late take-off takes you into a collapsing bowl. At least you will have speed.

Either way, a wipe out is a given. But you do have your choices.

The safest option is to bail. Dive deep under the foot, and pop up before the next one. This is smart on a slow ride because without momentum, you are doomed to being blown backwards over the falls when you confront that collapsing peak deep inside the Bowl. However, if you are smoking, you've may hit the collapsing lip with enough momentum to punch straight up into a free fall. It's great fun for about three seconds. You arch into the sky, totally separated from water. At the top of your arch, you hang suspended for a moment stopped in time. Just when you think, "Wow. What a beautiful space', your survival genes start screaming "Oh, shit. I'm going to fall back into that pandemonium!" (see Linda 4 "launched by a wave from Linda").

It's inevitable.

Well, none of this happened on my ride. I started near the bowl, and peeled away with the break back into the rebound wave - right towards the Jetty.

I realized the stupidity of my actions, but didn't care. . I was lined up perfectly on the wrong shoulder on a dangerous day, so I dropped in and screamed across the face. When I came to the rebound, I turned up the face and snapped into a free fall arch. It was a great ride.

I landed behind the collapsing wave, which broke with the usual deadening roar. I heard cheers, and at 18, I was stoked. I knew I was close to the jetty, but I was pumped with my own ego, and started swimming on my back like an otter, casually kicking back to the line up. I was a Hero! 

Suddenly, everything turned dark, and the water was dropping fast. I was getting sucked into a forming wave! I flipped onto my stomach to face an already vertical dark green wall with white foam across its face. It was a monster - 30 or 40 feet, and the lip was already pitching beyond me.

The wave sucked the water off the sand, a rare event that far out even at the Wedge. For an instant, time stopped as I froze like a deer caught in headlights. I stood on exposed wet sand, only 10 yards from those meat-grinder boulders, with tons of Green Death about to envelop me.

A million options went through my mind. "What am I doing here" was not among them. I didn't have the time.. 

Bodysurfers instinct says dive under the wave, so I dove at the very foot of the wave, but the last water was sucked up the face, and I landed flat out on wet sand. It was a good thing. I stayed flat, becoming one with the crabs, limpets and barnacles living in the jetty, evolved flat to withstand surf. 

The pitching wave started to fall. Imagine the Goodyear blimp filled with water, falling from five stories up. It seemed worse than that as a hundred tons of energized water hit the sand with a force that would have crushed me if I hadn't been flat on the deck. 

I took a huge deep gulp of air, expecting it to be my last

The impact drove me into the sand, then bounced me back up into the oncoming wave. The water was advancing to the beach with as much force as it was dropping. The Impact Zone is where these right angle energies intersect, and I was at Ground Zero, buried and bouncing under tons of imploding water.

When you are beneath them, Monster waves drop in agonizing slow motion. Their vortex is the tube, wound tight until it implodes with fury. I was helpless, at the mercy of wave physics, sucked backwards through a giant fire hose - ten feet above sand and ten feet from air. The white fury tried to dismember my extremities as I tossed in a cyclone of wet. 

Those were the days before fin straps, and I vividly remember my fins being sucked from my feet, the most sickening feeling of my life. I was lost in the Impact Zone at the Wedge on a legendary day, my only remaining asset my wet suit. I wouldn't get sand burns, I could still dive under waves, but I had just enough buoyancy to survive. 

The ability to remember which way is "Up" is a special talent that prevents broken necks at the Wedge, Waimea or Sandy Beach. It also saved my life when I was knocked unconscious while cliff diving. I was able to maintain enough the presence to hit the sand bottom feet first - not easy when you are flying backwards in turbulent water. Of course, I was instantly toppled and sucked further down the steep bottom while the wave sucked back off the steep sand beach. I was running out of air, and I could feel the surge pulling me back out into deep water.

After a long, wild underwater ride, my air was finished. I found the surface just in time to take one breath before getting hit square in the face by the next wave, just as big as the first. Repeat the above.

After a third wave, I was wasted, but alive, breathing real air, and floating just outside the impact zone...very important. 

I was also kissing the jetty&...very important. 

Fortunately, there were no more huge sets. I could see the waves forming down the jetty, and there was water underneath me. I was also very tired, and without fins. In big water like this, it's every man for himself, and I couldn't ask for help. But by then, I didn't need it. I was in for a long, grinding, tedious haul, but I would survive, and I knew it. 

There is usually a rip along the rocks that will take you on an interesting rip along the jetty to deep water, but I couldn't find it, so I just floated, expending only enough energy to clear the jetty, and let my wet suit do the work. When I regained enough energy to deal with the currents and chop, I tried getting away from the rocks. The recovery took about 20 minutes.

My strategy was simple - get away from the jetty and ride the back of a 'small" wave onto the beach. My goal was only 100 meters away, but without fins and sapped of energy in large seas, it took me another 40 minutes to get far enough off the jetty to where I could comfortably let a "small" wave spit me up onto sand. 

I was to exhausted to take a wipeout, so I hung way back on the shoulder and took a sluggish ride in. I was finally inside, with sand before me, but the shorebreak section reformed quickly. I sucked down the breaking shoulder in perfect position for an ungracious spit onto the steep sand, where I scrambled to the cut bank before the next wave hit. With all my remaining energy and very shaky knees, I stood upright at the cut bank. My head was still three feet below feet. I stuck my arms straight up - my wrists were finally sand level. 

I'm 6'4", so the cut bank must have been about 9 feet. 

Somebody grabbed my wrists and pulled me up to dry sand and safety. 

I had my teenage energy back in 15 minutes. Off came the wet suit and out came the stories. From shore, the family just though I was having a tough time catching big waves after a full day at Corona. I clawed and struggled on the edge of death for an hour, and Mom was bummed that I only caught one ride. 

When my knees stopped shaking, I walked down to the corner where the jetty meets sand. The sun was setting, and I wanted to muse on what almost was. The Wedge was still pumping, although nothing like the massive set that almost took my life.

I looked at the froth before me. Sure enough, there were both of my fins, bouncing around in the corner. I judged the break, ran into the surf, and retrieved first one, then the other. After all, Floating Duck Feet, Super Extra Large, were about $16/pair, special order only.

I realize I died that day. Teen-age ego got the best of me and clouded my judgment. The Wedge isn't a baseball game, and my break in concentration almost cost my life. Except for the Karma from saving the Corona Del Mar tourist, instantaneous instincts and excellent conditioning, I would not be here to write this.

While I was watching the sunset, I realized that everything I did from that day on became a Free Ride, and at 54, I still live my life accordingly - pushing the envelope daily. Even so, when I'm on the open sea, I never lose my focus.

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